For the last two centuries, it has been widely believed by Americans that what eventually became the United States was settled and founded on religious freedom. In 1620, the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts after a long voyage from England, to practice religion according to their beliefs. The basic version of history has been that they were unable to practice their religion freely in their mother country, so they came to a new land in hopes of creating a better world of religious freedom. When Americans hear this, their chests often swell with pride. After all, Americans think of their country as the land of the free and the home of the brave, as sung prior to every sporting event in “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is a popular notion, among Americans, that Americans are indeed the good guys. They are the ones the world turns to when there is a major problem and the one whose country exemplifies the most individual liberties on the planet. At least that’s what most Americans think, or used to.
While the “founding fathers” (whatever that means) who wrote the constitution, were certainly concerned about religious freedom, the premise that America was originally settled on religious liberty is far from being entirely true. Therefore, the idea that the Pilgrims came here for religious freedom will be closely examined in this essay. Moreover, the theory that the early settlers of New England came to America more out of intolerance of the religious practices of others will also be considered. Evidence will be looked at before their trip to the New World, delving into their theosophical belief in Calvinism, as well as after the formation of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and the concomitant intolerances and atrocities that took place. Finally, this essay will follow the vestiges of Calvinistic philosophy up until the present day as a major component as to why there is still religious and lifestyle intolerance, and, dare I say, hate, in the modern day United States.
The “founding fathers” of the United States of America were well aware of the repressive nature of church and state being one. Although, in the Articles of Confederation and later in U.S. Constitution, there is specific religious language bandied about, by the time the Bill of Rights rolled around, such language appears to be conspicuous only by its absence. The “framers” were highly educated men who knew well the history of Henry VIII and the all the metamorphosis that took place in the Church of England since then. They also were well aware of the dangers of church-run states, as was the case in some of the colonies. Therefore, the first of amendment of the United States Constitution specifically addressed the issue:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. - Bill of Rights, Amendment One
James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, along with his co-workers such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, were all relatively religiously tolerant men for their times, who, although may have attended different religious denominations, were considered Deists to one degree or another. Deism is a “religion,” that takes its inspiration from the natural world and may or may not believe in a God, but does not subscribe to any specific scriptural revelations. The Calvinists of the day, however, left much less room for the lifestyle and beliefs of others.
Calvinism, best known for its doctrine of Predestination, was named after the 16th century French reformer John Calvin and later developed by other prominent members of the Protestant Reformation movement. According to the doctrine of Predestination, which was a backlash to some of the practices of the Catholic Church of the time, salvation is not awarded to someone due to merit obtained through good works or the blessings of the church in this lifetime, but rather, God has already chosen those who will be saved beforehand. In essence, either you are a chosen one or you are damned to hell. Calvinists believed that your fate would be revealed by your own standard of behavior and example of purity. In short, if you were one of the “chosen ones,” you had it made in the shade, if not, it was “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and I do mean “damned,” in the most extreme sense of the word.
In practice, the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries was a morphed hybrid of Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reform Movement, which was heavily influenced by Calvinism. While some English Reformers attempted to influence the Church of England from within, others thought of that attempt as a watering down of the real principles of the Reformation Movement and instead elected to become separatists and break away from England all together. These separatists, who were later to become known as Puritans in some circles, attempted to create their idea of the perfect society in Holland in the early 1600s. This experiment only lasted a short while, however, when the Puritans became concerned that their children were becoming too influenced by the local culture and were therefore risking their good spiritual standing. For some, this mentality may be hard to understand because if they were indeed predestined, it didn’t really make a hell of a lot of difference what they chose to do. But, anyway, we can suspend our disbelief, just to humor whatever ghosts are left over hovering around from that wonderful era of human history. Finally, these soon to be “Puritans” decided to set sail for the New World, more specifically Virginia, in order to start their dream society. Yippee! My country ‘tis of thee, and all that other crap! Anyway, from at least one angle of vision, the Puritans were not being religiously prosecuted for their beliefs, but instead the Puritans thought the societies of England and Holland were too contaminated to associate with and consequently did not live up to their spiritual standards.
On the way to Virginia, the Mayflower was diverted north by storms to Plymouth, Massachusetts where they soon settled with help from the Native Americans. Oh, the providenial “acts of God,” are just extraordinary, don’t you think? Later, in 1629, John Winthrop led a more fanatical brand of Puritans to Massachusetts and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was there, in the region of Boston, that Winthrop delivered his famous “City on a Hill” sermon in 1630. In his speech, he envisioned a city where people lived up to the true Christian ideal and set a shining example for all to see. Reminds me of a George Harrison lyric that quotes Regan quoting Winthrop- “There’s an actor who hopes to fit the bill/ Sees a shining city on a hill/ Step up close and see he’s blind, wined and dined/ All he has is pose/ And that’s the way it goes.” Anyway, before setting sail from Europe, Winthrop was elected Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a post he would be re-elected to 12 times before his death in 1649. Although the Puritans were said to have come to the New World to practice religious freedom, it appears they showed very little tolerance to anyone who differed in belief even slightly.
While the Puritans came to the New World, in their minds to preserve their freedom of worship, they seemingly had zero forbearance for anyone who preached any idea outside of their line of thinking. Such defectors were generally deemed heretics. When Roger Williams said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a legal charter in God’s eyes because the Puritans had not purchased the land from its rightful owner, the Native Americans, the governmental officials were concerned. When Williams further insisted that punishing people for their religious beliefs was not the colony’s business but God’s business, the magistrates of the government could take any more and banished him from the colony. I find it quite interesting that the Puritans used religious extremism on somebody who was religiously extreme (by today’s standards), only because they were, in fact, even more religiously extreme. Williams, of course, later founded Providence, Rhode Island, by “the will of providence.” There was also an outspoken woman named Anne Hutchinson, who held religious meetings in her home, who concerned the magistrates even more. She claimed that she communed directly with God from time and time and that God told her that most of the preachers in the churches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were no better than the preachers in the Church of England. Talk about a major insult. She was also duly kicked out of the colony onto her proverbial Puritan ass.
The religious intolerance of the Puritans did not stop there. After all, why stop when you’ve got the hot hand and you’re on a roll? The Wampanoag Tribe, of whom the Puritans increasingly stole more land from as torturous time went on, had members regularly arrested by the Massachusetts Bay Colony for not being married in Christian ceremonies. A little more than 50 years later in 1691, panic had swept through Salem Village, when several young girls claimed they were “victims of witches.” In the first few decades of the colony, about 15 alleged witches had been executed, but never before had such fervor and hysteria affected the Puritan community. By the time the Witch Trials of 1692 were over, 19 women and men had been hanged for being witches and one more was pressed to death for the same alleged “crime.” Man, if I were around during that time, I would have never left my tarot cards out for anyone to see.
Not only did the Calvinistic Puritans come to the New World due to lack of tolerance of other faiths around them in Europe, but they also displayed excessive lack of tolerance to those who did not follow their creed in the New World. Does this sound anything like a certain branch of a certain modern day political party? One may naturally wonder how a community that claims to be religious and God-fearing could commit such abominations against other human beings? I mean, wasn’t it Mr Jesus Christ Almighty H(h)imself that propounded the teaching to love thy neighbor as thyself? Well, apparently they didn’t love themselves very much with all the penances, austerities and self-denial they were involved in.
Today it is often claimed by the religious right that America is a Christian nation and was founded on Christian principles. A stern look at history, however, shows that the picture was a little more complicated than that. While there were zealots, like the early Puritans, who thought that the Church and State should be one, there were also those more of Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison’s ilk, who saw the inherent danger in such a theocracy. Of course, they came after, well aware of how much religious fanatics could fuck a situation up and trample on the rights of others. When the Church and State are one they realized that a person would no longer be allowed to freely practice the religion of his or her choice. Instead, the person becomes subjected to a government with absolute authority over everything one does, says and thinks. The philosophy of Calvinism opens the door to killing in the name of religion because it polarizes the “chosen ones” from the evil “other.” As history shows, killing is quite negotiable when it comes to religious beliefs.
The philosophy of Calvinism also ultimately rules out free will. Therefore, Predestination is often referred to as Double Predestination. Not only are the chosen people destined to go to the Kingdom of God before they are born but those who are not chosen are destined to meet with eternal hell. Such a philosophy cannot possibly be equated with a loving God who is all-good. The problem of evil, in this case, could ultimately be traced to God Himself because it is He who created the individuals who will be destined to suffer without a choice in the matter. It is therefore not a much of a stretch to see how followers of such a supposed God could become callous to other’s suffering. That is because they depict a sadistic God who is omniscient and omnipotent and rather random about who suffers and who doesn’t in this world. When you worship such a “devil,” you eventually become quite a “devil” yourself, just by a matter of logical sequence.
While the philosophy of Calvinism has been reformed to a large extent to include the possession of free will for every individual, one can see vestiges of intolerance in the denominational descendants of the Calvinism to this day. All the major religious denominations in America that have sprung from the Reform Movement have been tinged with this virus of seeing those outside of one’s faith as “the other” and all of its inherently concomitant prejudices. Concepts such as “Jesus is the only way,” and eternal damnation are widespread beliefs of many millions of Americans up to the present day. While such philosophies don’t come right out and say that God has created someone that has no choice but to suffer eternally, they imply it. There are , after all, billions of people around the world who have been born into different religions, some who will have little or no opportunity to become “born again.” Is one to believe that such individuals will suffer hellfire for all eternity? When a person actually believes this, his or her psychology completely changes. Life becomes less sacred. If a normal parent more easily forgives their child than God does, what can be said of worshippers of such a God? Many logicians see the concept of eternal hell to be insulting to an all-good and all-powerful God. If God is the most merciful, than why is He condemning people to eternal suffering?
This prejudice (notice the make up of the word which signifies pre-judging others) also extends into the realm of innate lifestyle “choices” as well. If a person is predisposed to be a homosexual or lesbian, then how can you judge them? While many modern day followers of Calvin deny that sexual orientation is a psychological and/or physiological predisposition, the vestiges of their rather hateful philosophy (which is in complete contradiction to the teachings of Jesus), state that even if it were, such people are damned nonetheless.
In a related topic, many young people today are becoming atheists and agnostics because Christianity (in most of its modern day incarnations) cannot reconcile that fact that bad things happen to good people in a world said to be run by an all-good and all-powerful God. They rightly perceive that the world is too complicated and more people in general are too sophisticated to accept the Judea-Christian explanation to what they perceive as the “problem of evil.” In other words, why does “evil” exist in the world if God is both benevolent and omnipotent? Rabbi Harold Kushner understood this philosophical dilemma and attempted to answer it almost 30 years ago with an explanation that sent many followers of the Torah reeling. He said that God was indeed all-good, but His omnipotence must be questioned if bad things continue to happen to the innocent.
In a philosophy class I took a few semesters ago, the rather openly “Calvinistic” professor brought up the problem of evil and said that the cause of suffering in this world is the biblical phenomena of “original sin.” That is, 5000 years ago, or whenever it really was, God got sore at Adam and Eve and decided to blame all of humanity on their transgressions for all time. The only way out of that curse, apparently, was to accept Jesus as the only way, because, as Annie Lennox once sung, “I was born an original sinner/ And I was born in original sin.” When I raised my hand and, in my general meek and humble way, proposed the ideas of the East, which include karma and reincarnation to help aide the problem, this so-called “even-keeled professor, almost gave birth to an unsacred cow. I, however, continued, “If my Dad ever blamed me for something that my brother did, I thought he was out to lunch, or not exactly on the ball and of fair-disposition.” I cannot see how this idea of “representational sin” could be more philosophically sound than each person taking responsibility for their own actions as found in the East, I continued. Such crazy notions, as interpreted out of the Bible, have contributed to an even greater disharmony between science and religion than otherwise would have been there, because religion in this country has not traditionally aligned itself with facts or logic.
Doctrines like eternal damnation fly in the face of a fair and merciful God, no doubt. The basic premise has always been, as is used today by politicians and the media, that fear is a very effective emotion to use in order to control people. The best way to do this, is to paint another group of people, who may be different than you in some rather superfluous way, out to be your enemy and of the “devil,” more or less.
Throughout the history of America, there have been many issues caused by this “othering,” which can arguably be traced back to Calvinistic philosophy. First, the white settlers came and stole land from the Native Americans. “And the unsung western hero killed an Indian or three/ Then he made his name in Hollywood to set the White man free/ now, Jesus save me.” – Ian Andersen. The wars that followed were tantamount to almost complete genocide of a race of people. Next, the settlers imported Africans to work as slaves on their plantations for the purposes of economic development. . “Old pirate, yes, they rob I/ Sold I to the merchant ships.” – Bob Marley. Millions of innocent people were ripped away from their families and put into work-bondage as if they were sub-humans. So many slaves inhabited the United States, that, at one point, 15-percent of the entire population of the nation was owned by white landowners. Later, the term Manifest Destiny became the rationalization to traverse across the North American continent and claim the lands of the Native Americans and Mexicans by any means necessary, as if it were the white man’s inherent birthright. “
Today, gay and lesbian people do not have the right to marry in most states and political candidates are subjected to debates mediated by the head of a Christian church. The Republican Party is highly influenced by the Christian right and a candidate must bend to its agenda if he or she has any hope of nomination. Originally, the Calvinist philosophy left no room for the points of view of others, and that tradition appears to continue to have somewhat of a hold as we enter into the second decade of the 21st century. Oh Calvinism, how I love thee, and how you love all the peoples of the world!